Three wishes for 2012

Fresh from a few whirlwind weeks of book promotion and PR, I’ve been trying to relax and celebrate Christmas here in Dublin, but it’s never easy.

For one thing, Christmas in Ireland is celebrated with the boundless madness that pervaded ancient Rome, with tons of food and drink and promises not to eat or drink this much again for a very long time.

For another, my appearances last week on Pat Kenny’s programmes on RTE TV¬†and radio prompted huge amounts of feedback, and for once I’m wishing my days away. I’m looking forward to getting back to Stockholm and getting stuck into a whole bunch of different initiatives.

I said in the foreword to A Parish Far From Home that I did not recognise the Ireland often depicted in the media here, and those interviews showed signs of finally proving me to be at least partially right.

There is a huge amount of energy and ideas that, with a little help from our friends, can be channelled into real achievements, real businesses, real art, real jobs. As with Dave Browne’s staggering world record back in June, sometimes you just have to do something.

But there is still a lot that is rotten at the core of Irish society – it cannot be changed overnight, but in 2012 we can make steps towards making our society and the debate that surrounds it more open and inclusive.

Here’s three of them.

Reform the laws that govern our media: It should not be possible for the powerful to suppress valid critcism and discussion simply by threatening legal action. What is needed is an independent system where those who feel wronged by the media – and there are many who rightfully feel they have a case – can get justice.

In turn, the media in Ireland needs to have a long, hard look at itself. So do those of us who consume it.

Too many stories are written before the subjects are even interviewed, and what passes for debate is often two extreme sides locking horns, completely unrepresentative of the vast swathe of opinion that occupies the middle ground.

We all need to be more reasonable, to listen more and to be willing to question what we believe to be right. There is no other path to lasting change.

There is also a lot we are not being told. When an argument does not stand up to public scrutiny, it is either wrong or not the real reason behind a decision or policy. For too long we have been spun different yarns- who will pay the nurses and the Gardai? Our ATMs will be out of cash by Monday and the rest – which are as idiotic as they are simplistic.

There a highly complex political reasons for why Ireland cannot be seen to win in our struggle against Europe and the financial woes that afflict us, but our leaders think that we can’t or won’t understand them.

We gave the world Joyce and Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Paul McGrath – try us.

And if we still don’t understand them, give us an education system that gives our children the tools to do so.

That way, we might prevent it from ever happening again.

Get involved: Far too many of us sit on the sidelines and don’t take part.
A friend of mine ended a lifetime of political inertia to go canvass for a party in the February election.
The messages on the doorsteps taught him more about the Irish political climate than a lifetime on the internet politics message boards. Since then, he has trotted back to the sidelines – one strike and he was out.
It’s a simple fact of democracy – the more of us that engage ourselves, the purer our democracy becomes. There is little or no chance of changing things from the outside. If you’re not in, you can’t win.
Talk about it: For once, let us have a story that runs and runs to a happy conclusion. 2011 has put suicide on the map in Ireland, often grudgingly so. Make no mistake- there are those who, like certain employers in the PR business, do not want to see the discussion take place in public.

It is a discussion that is painful for all of us, as it confronts us with our shortcomings as friends and siblings and lovers. It also asks us the deepest questions of ourselves – could we ever think of doing it ourselves? What would happen to our children and our friends and families?

However painful that discussion is, it is nowhere near as painful as sitting with a pill jar or a noose in your hand.

So let’s keep the discussion going. And if at the end of next year we find that less people have taken their own lives than this year, let’s keep it going for another year after that.

Happy New Year.

The real shame would be to ignore wisdom of Norris

Ireland's next president?

That David Norris would be “got at” sooner or later was a foregone conclusion. He is almost too perfect a presidential candidate for modern Ireland.

He’s gay, educated and he has a very good chance of winning. And that would never do.

I don’t believe in most conspiracy theories, especially not those that attach themselves to Irish public life, where most people are too short-sighted and selfish to have any Machiavellian designs.

It’s more the case that Irish public discourse is susceptible to its very own form of chaos theory, where the butterfly beat of a Liveline producer’s wings causes a tsunami of indignation on Today with PK the next day.

But when the waves of indignation over Helen Lucy Burke’s badly-written Magill article once again abandon the strand we would do well to read the senator’s words carefully, for there is a golden nugget among them.

Somwhere on her water-damaged interview tapes, Norris is purported to have said “I think that the children in some instances are more damaged by the condemnation than by the actual experience” of paedophilia.

For that alone, he is worth your vote in a presidential election – of all the things he told her about sex that night in what seems to be the most bizarre of interviews, this is by far the most intelligent.

For where does the shame of the victim of paedophilia come from? What is it that they have done wrong? Trust an adult? Obey them? Expect protection?

For the most part, children instinctively know that abuse is wrong, but it is the sense of shame forced upon them that guarantees their silence and allows perpetrators to continue. This sense of shame is not of their own making.

It is foisted upon them by those who abuse – “if you tell, I’ll say it was your fault. You wanted it. You liked it. You enjoyed it. You teased me into it. Besides, no-one will believe you.”

It is foisted on them by society too, as if we believe that they should have fought back, resisted, refused.

It is a shame born of the anger and rage of helpless fathers and families, who wish they had seen or heard or done more and stopped it in its tracks.

It is a shame well-known to victims of adult rape too – male and female – and is a major part in why they don’t come forward. The physical scars may heal in time, but it is the mental ones – the shame foisted upon them by us – that are ever-lasting. Any woman who ever sat in a witness box will testify to that.

You don’t believe it? Look at the Ryan report. It was only when knowledge of the appalling behaviour of the “men of God” came into the public domain that the Catholic Church started to do something about the systemic abuse of children. True, it did too little, too late, but it was better late than never.

In turn, child abuse in everything from schools to sport to family homes shot up the agenda and a raft of legislation was passed to ensure it could never happen again. For many who turned to drugs or drink to deal with the shame of the abuse perpetrated on them, it was too late.

But for those brave people who came forward and said “this shame is not mine to bear alone”, we would still have no idea of the extent of the abuse that happened in Ireland, and it would have continued unabated. The church still continues to drag its heels in making restitution, and is rightly held in contempt for it.

A friend told me once of a female war correspondent who gave a talk to other journalists about her work. She was asked about the most difficult thing she faced in the field.

“I would say it was the first time I was raped in a war zone,” she answered.

“The first time?” asked the moderator of the discussion, incredulous.

“Yes, the first time,” answered this remarkable woman. “after that, you realise it’s not about you. It’s about them“.

The problem of the legacy of child abuse in Ireland will not be solved by Norris, Helen Lucy Burke, Joe Jackson, Joe Duffy or Pat Kenny.

The problem is that the discussion about it has for the most part been about who was to blame.

But for the healing to begin properly, for us to help repair all those lives knocked off their axis by the deeds of the church and others, it’s time for a different discussion- about who was not to blame.

The children.

And shame on those who – unlike Senator David Norris – say otherwise.